Thursday, July 8, 2010

Columbine - Dave Cullen (Kindle)


There are a handful of events in our lives that we use to mark time. When JFK was shot, when Lennon was shot, 9/11...and Columbine. We will forever remember where we were and what we were doing the moment we heard the news. I was on an out-of-town job, pregnant with my son and a toddler at home when I saw the bloody, hysterical students running out of their school, when I saw Patrick Ireland fall out of that window. I was devastated; I was terrified. How could two boys go so wrong? How could I raise two children into a world like this?

I've read two other works of fiction that heavily reference Columbine - We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lionel Shriver) and The Hour I First Believed (Wally Lamb). And while I am a true crime junkie, I still hesitated to read this one. Could I handle the truth? Ten years later, my heart still hurts. Eventually, the need to understand won out over my fears.

I don't think I need to say much about what happened. April 20, 1999, two troubled boys, an arsenal of weapons, and a grand master plan to kill hundreds at their school. Ultimately, 13 were killed and dozens injured, some permanently. Their plan ultimately (thankfully) fell short because their home-made bombs failed to detonate. At the end of the spree they killed themselves, but they left behind notes, diagrams, journals and videos to paint a very specific picture for the public. They had nothing to hide. They were proud.

Cullen has done an exemplary job of collecting the facts. He has accumulated hundreds of hours of interviews, read the police documents, read newspaper articles, read Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's journals, and viewed the "Basement Tapes". It was his mission to set the record straight on the facts, as they had been skewed by the police department and the media from the second the first shot was fired. It was also his mission to better understand the why, through the help of the FBI clinical psychologist and Columbine investigator Dwayne Fuselier.

The facts were heartbreaking. Prepare yourself for some disturbing reading while Cullen recounts the actual shooting at the school. The students who were shot, killed, but left uncovered on the sidewalk for 28 hours. The teacher who bled to death because the SWAT team did not want to risk entry. The ultimate blood-bath in the library.

The facts are perplexing. The boys came from respectable, middle-class families, who may have been out of touch and allowed too much unsupervised free time, but were loving caring parents. Both boys were exceptionally bright.

The facts were twisted. The boys did not target the jocks. They were not part of the Trench Coat Mafia. They were not influenced by Marilyn Manson, they were not "goth", they were not loners.

But the warning signs were there. The boys started getting into minor mischief that escalated into vandalism, theft,building bombs, and eventually were arrested. They wrote essays that fixated on murder and violence. A search warrant, which would have uncovered their arsenal, was written but never filed.
Did it happen because of bullying, as many claimed? Fuselier does not believe so. In fact, he has declared Harris to be a full-blown psychopath...a kid who hated the world. Eric killed to demonstrate his superiority and to enjoy it. Klebold adversely was a depressive...he hated himself. He followed Harris as a way to end his misery.

It is mind-boggling to imagine the volume of data that Cullen had to assimilate to tell the story. But he has, and has done it well. He jumps back and forth between the event and its aftershock, and the background of Harris and Klebold leading up to the event. He examines the effect of the event on the community, on the survivors and where they are now, the lawsuits, the role of religion in the healing, the myths, the cover-ups, the steps taken to reopen the school...it is all here. It is the most complete true crime novel I've ever read, all written in an easy-to-read prose.

It is also important to emphasize that this is not an attempt to sensationalize the tragedy. It is tactful and factual - a real testament to the victims. A must-read.

5 out of 5 stars


30 comments:

farmlanebooks said...

This book has been on my wishlist for a while, but I haven't got hold of a copy yet. I'm fascinated by what motivates people to commit these crimes and so I like reading these type of books.

For a fictional version I recommend A Thousand Cuts by Simon Lelic. It will be one of my favourite reads of 2010.

I hope to read this at some point in the nearish future.

caite said...

not sure why, but the whole Columbine incident does not interest me. terrible, sad, horrific...but not something I am interested in reading more about.

but good review! ;-)

Beth F said...

Whoa, this is a heavy book. For some reason I've avoid the books (fiction and nonfiction) about school shootings. I should really take a look.

Molly said...

I have also felt compelled to read more on this topic, probably in an attempt to discover HOW and WHY something like this happens (unfortunately, I do not think there is a "neat and tidy" answer to that question)

I found this book incredible. Cullen's vast amount of research was impressive, but his ability to pare it down to the essential elements was even more astounding.

GREAT review!

JoAnn said...

Excellent review, Sandy! I definitely want to read this one. I loved The Hour I First Believed, but had to put aside the audio of We Need to Talk About Kevin (don't know if it was the reader's tone or the writing itself, but it seemed sarcastic/smug and I just couldn't listen).

Julie P. said...

I so want to read this book! Columbine actually happened on my 30th birthday and I remember sitting by the television that evening just glued to it. I've heard that this book is just an amazing account.

Trisha said...

I typically avoid books about contemporary real life tragedies as they are typically sensationalist stories which were published/filmed for nothing more than profit. But your review has really made me change my thinking on this book; it sounds like the author did the proper thing and went for truth!

bermudaonion said...

We had just moved to Auburn and Vance was in middle school when the shooting at Columbine took place. I remember being glued to my TV horrified and wanting nothing more than to hug my child and keep him close to me. I keep reading that this book is well written, but I'm just not sure I could handle it.

Zibilee said...

I have not read much in the true crime genre, but this book sounds very interesting, if only for the fact that it dispels so many rumors and gets into the psyche of the boys. I think I would really like to read this book. I bet that it would be a really gripping read. Fabulous review, Sandy!

Jenny said...

Great review! I hadn't paid too much attention to this book but it does sound like a must-read.

Susan said...

I totally agree - this one was totally fascinating. It kept me spellbound and even gave me nightmares. I've always wondered how the parents of the shooters could not have known what their boys were up to, and I think this book explains it in an honest and sensitive way. Great review of a great book!

diaryofaneccentric said...

Thank you for the wonderfully written, thoughtful review. I think it would be interesting to read just to try to understand why this happened. How horrible and sad.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

It's so scary to think of what can happen to kids in spite of good, loving parents. This sounds like such a disturbing book on many levels!

The Bumbles said...

I honestly have no recollection of where I was or what I was doing for Columbine. I assume I would have been at work and back then everything wasn't as instant as it is now. I can tell you about Reagan's assassination, Challenger, OJ and 9-11 though. Didn't you say you read this book while you were on vacation? Such a dark topic to wrap your brain around. Your review gives strong reasons to read it. Of course I am sympathetic to the victims - but I always wondered about these boys' parents too. That might be worse than anything. Losing your child and knowing they took the lives of others. How do you live without blame and doubt? The entire event was so heartbreaking.

Alyce said...

Everyone says that this book is so good, and I am kicking myself for not making time to read it when I had it checked out from the library. I've got to make more time! :)

heidenkind said...

I was home from school, "sick," and saw the entire thing play out on TV.

I worked with a guy who graduated from Columbine, and he said every one at the school became a very close-knit group after what happened. They still all keep in touch with each other. Sometimes I wonder what those two guys would think if they knew what they did actually ended up bringing the people they apparently hated closer together.

Literate Housewife said...

I was at work listening to the radio when news about Columbine first came on. Like you, I'll never forget that day. I had brothers and sisters in high school and it was terrifying.

When I traveled to Denver a couple of years ago for work, they took us to a restaurant in Littleton. When I realized why that name rang a bell, it brought tears to my eyes. It still haunts people out there.

I need to read this book as well. Great review, Sandy!

Kathleen said...

Cullen did such a thorough job researching the facts surrounding this event. I was blown away by the book and also a bit frustrated that answers were not as neat and tidy as I had been led to believe by the media stories. I would give this book a 5 out of 5 too. It is one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read.

Jenners said...

Sandy .... you did a wonderful job reviewing this. I read it about the same time you did but still haven't written my review. I will do my best not to repeat yours ... but you said so much of what I want to say. It was an incredibly well researched and written book and it did a brilliant job of sorting out all the myths that have sprung up around the shooting. Well done, my friend.

ds said...

Excellent review, Sandy. I don't recall where I was or what I was doing at the time, but it all seemed so unreal, so "It Can't Happen Here." But of course it did and was tragic for all of the reasons you mention. This book does need to be read. Thank you.

Susan said...

The book sounds very compelling.

If you like Debra Winger, and who doesn't, watch the 2005 made-for-TV movie "Dawn Anna". She's sensational in the title role. I can't tell you anything about it. Just watch it.

Michele at Reader's Respite said...

Well I don't have to tell you how much I loved this on audiobook (I know I've said so at least a dozen times). The book was mind-blowing. Not too long ago, I saw where one of the mothers of the boys finally gave an interview...I didn't get to read it (Good Housekeeping or something like that ran it), but I'd love to find it and read it....it was the first interview she's ever given.

Rebecca @ The Book Lady's Blog said...

You were right, Sandy---this is one of your best reviews ever, and it reaffirmed my desire to read this book. Thanks for a fabulous one!

Iliana said...

Great review, Sandy! While I typically don't read true crime I think this is one book I might be interested in because of their journals. I can't imagine what their entries must have been like and it is just so unbelievable that these kids did this.

Melissa M said...

I've wanted to read this one for a while, but have put it off because I know it's going to be heavy. I remember being in college and sitting glued to the TV with my roommates. All of us are CO natives, and one of my roommates was from Denver. She had to make phone calls making sure friends who went to Columbine were safe. The whole situation will be forever in my mind.

Matt said...

I have to take a deep breath before reading this book, which is available in electronic format from the public library. Cullen's research on this book is first-rate, packed with so many details in the emotions and motives of the event.

Alice Teh said...

OK, one more to add to the pile. All I can say is THANK YOU. And I echo the rest.

Dave Cullen said...

Sandy, thanks so much for that. I really appreciate the kind words and the help spreading the word.

I was four days from move-day when this posted, but just saw the link on Jenners' site.

There's much more about the book and the tragedy on my Columbine site. And for kids, I created a Students Page there, and several videos. (Some of them are designed for book clubs or classing, covering topics like the structure of the book, and my choice of characters.

FYI, for schools and book clubs, I'm offering to skype in for 20-30 minutes this fall/summer.

Thanks.

gm said...

Cullen , who first reported on the story for the online magazine Salon, acknowledges in the book's source notes that thoughts he attributes to Klebold and Harris are conjecture gleaned from the record the pair left behind.

Jeff Kass takes a more straightforward approach in "Columbine: A True Crime Story," working backward from the events of the fateful day.
The Denver Post

Mr. Cullen insists that the killers enjoyed "far more friends than the average adolescent," with Harris in particular being a regular Casanova who "on the ultimate high school scorecard . . . outscored much of the football team." The author's footnotes do not reveal how he knows this; when I asked him about it while preparing this review, Mr. Cullen said he did not necessarily mean to imply that Harris was sexually active. But what else would such words mean?

"Eric and Dylan never had any girlfriends," the more sober Mr. Kass writes, and were "probably virgins upon death."
Wall Street Journal

Honest Woman said...

Wow...I have never wanted to read true crime books before. Your review has certainly swayed me. I don't think any sane person can really truly understand how anyone can do such a thing (and worse). But hopefully this book would give me more of an idea...thanks!